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Billion Oyster People: John Cronin

By Susannah Black
August 1, 2016

John Cronin, Harbor School’s 2016 commencement speaker, is someone whose influence on Billon Oyster Project can’t be overemphasized.  Now the Senior Fellow for Environmental Affairs at Pace University’s Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, Cronin came to public prominence as the first Hudson Riverkeeper, a post to which he was appointed in 1983.  Throughout his career, he has been one of America’s most influential environmentalists.  We reproduce here his graduation speech, which will both introduce Professor Cronin to our community, and describe how BOP meshes into the work that he has spent his life pursuing.  


When I was sitting where you are now, waiting to graduate, what was going through my head was a question: Was my name going to be called?  My final year in high school, I failed two courses.  I failed to complete my science requirement… The long and short of it is, …I was a social promotion from high school.  Anybody know what a social promotion is?  That’s when they promote you because it will be socially bad for you to keep you back.  I’m not sure they did me a favor.  But, I managed to get out of high school.  I didn’t even look at my final report card.  I was afraid to.  My parents were in the audience and I didn’t know if my name was going to be called.  And so my entire view of my future was frozen in those moments…

I managed to get into a university and flunked out a year later.  But I’ve had a fortunate career none the less.  I’ve been an environmental activist, a congressional aide, the Hudson Riverkeeper, a founder of a research center at Clarkson University, and now a senior fellow at Pace University.  I’ve been an author and a filmmaker, I’ve successfully lobbied for three state laws related to the Hudson River.  I’ve brought scores of cases against environmental lawbreakers.  I’ve won a lot of awards, including an honorary law degree, but when I look back on that career, which now spans over forty years, there is no way I could have imagined when I sat where you sit what my accomplishments would be.

John Cronin on the EcoDock with Katie Mosher-Smith, BOP Restoration Manager

John Cronin on the EcoDock with Katie Mosher-Smith, BOP Restoration Manager

I didn’t know then that the Hudson River would become a major part of my life.  I grew up in a city next to the Hudson: Yonkers, New York. There was only one thing that we actually understood about the Hudson River growing up in Yonkers, and that was that the good Lord put it there to separate us from New Jersey.  And no, this is not a slam on New Jersey.  The people of New Jersey feel the same way.

But I did know one other thing, which is that you weren’t supposed to swim in the Hudson River.  And so you have a great advantage on me.  I grew up with no connection to the river right outside my door.  You have had the benefit of the single greatest classroom on the planet, which is New York Harbor.  I grew up in a generation that was taught that you stayed away from New York Harbor, that you stayed away from the Hudson River estuary, that it was dangerous, it was no place for people.  It may be hard for you to imagine today, but that was what it was like.  New York Harbor and the urban Hudson are where people and the environment meet with profound consequences for each.  And the most important part of that equation, in my point of view, is people.

BOP Director Pete Malinowski with John Cronin's students.

BOP Director Pete Malinowski with John Cronin’s students.

You must never forget about people.  Our planet is designed particularly for people, and the environment, whether urban or rural, must always be safe for us to live.  What can you do to make sure that that’s so?  You can change the world in your own backyard, if you ignore the people who tell you you cannot do it.  You have to always heed that inner voice that imagines that you are capable of great things because all great things begin with one simple thing: an act of the imagination.  The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School began with an act of imagination.  Every great book, every great piece of music, every piece of art, every great accomplishment in history in the world began with an act of imagination.  Some synapse firing, some cellular change in somebody’s brain, that said “I can imagine a different future.”  But then, that person was fearless enough to take action on what they imagined.  That is the story of Harbor School.  That’s the story of the Hudson River.  That’s the reason why you can actually go out and dive in the harbor.  That’s the reason you can plant oysters.  Because someone imagined a different generation that would be able to do so.  And Murray Fisher is one of those people.

I became Hudson Riverkeeper in 1983.  I was hired first by fishermen to patrol and protect the Hudson River.  For seventeen years, I listened to that little inner voice.  One of my first cases was against the Exxon Oil Company.  We were told that Exxon was rinsing its oil tanks out into the Hudson River.  We pulled up our boat right next to the oil tanker, got on the radio and said to the captain, “What are you doing?” and he said “What authority are you?  Under what authority are you asking me this question?”

It was my first day on the job as Riverkeeper and I had never called myself the Hudson Riverkeeper.  It was the first time anyone had come up with the job.  The fishermen had imagined this job: Somebody would just go out, no badge, no warrants, no official position in government, just go out and hunt down polluters.  And while the guy asked under what authority I was asking this question, I had an NBC news crew aboard the boat… Well, I totally embarrassed myself.  I said “I’m the Riverkeeper.”  Twenty million people were going to watch this on the news.

And they said “Yes, Riverkeeper? What do you want?”  And I said “What are you discharging into the Hudson River?” And he said “seawater,” but you could smell the oil and the chemicals.  It wasn’t seawater.  They were rinsing out their tanker.  And he said to me again,  “Under what authority are you asking me this question?”  And I thought, “He can’t talk to me like that,  I’m the Hudson Riverkeeper!”  I said “I’m the Riverkeeper. I want to know what you’re doing.”  And I said “Under what authority are you discharging into the river?”  And that’s when he said “Under the authority of Exxon International.”


John Cronin, 1983 Photo credit: Don Nice

Within four months, Exxon pulled all its tankers off the river.  They paid two million dollars for what they did and they’ve never come back.  And they had not just been rinsing out their oil tankers in the Hudson River.  They were also taking Hudson River freshwater down to Aruba to run their refinery.  It was quite an operation.  And who was I?  I was just some guy from Yonkers who called himself the Riverkeeper.  With a couple of fishermen behind me who said, “Yeah, he’s the Hudson Riverkeeper.”  But we imagined.  We imagined that we could defeat even the biggest oil company in the world.  We never doubted that we could do that.

And during that time, almost twenty years ago, we had a young intern named Murray Fisher.  And he had the unenviable job of having to paint the inside of the Riverkeeper boat during a sweltering heat wave.  While we were outside painting the hull, he was in the cabin, scraping and painting.  And while he was down in that cabin, he began his dream, that today is Harbor School.  

There are over 280 Waterkeepers on six continents, and we’re in the tenth year of Harbor School, for one simple reason.   People who trusted the idea they imagined had the fearlessness to act on that imagination and to do it for the greater good.  They imagined a different world.  It’s not to much to say that we changed the world right in our own backyard, right here in New York Harbor, right here in the Hudson Estuary, nine miles from where I grew up.

So let me give you a little lesson in law… We have a right to do what we are doing.  You have a right to restore oysters. You know why?  Because there’s an legal doctrine called the public trust doctrine that reaches back to ancient times and is a central part of environmental law today that says there are natural resources such as the tidal waters of New York Harbor that belong to all of us.  The government can hold it in trust, but it belongs to us.  It is probably the single largest thing you or I will ever own in our lifetimes: Our piece of that trust of New York Harbor.  And I don’t think there’s anybody here who will stand back and watch something taken away from them.  It belongs to us, it belongs to you.  And you’re going to go forth from the Harbor School with that lesson in mind.  


Do you know what captures my imagination now?  It’s not catching another oil tanker, no matter how fun that is.  It’s not even increasing the number of Waterkeepers around the planet.  What captures my imagination today, more than any other idea I have heard in my professional career is a billion oysters in New York Harbor.  What captures my imagination today is thousands of young New Yorkers restoring one of the most fascinating ecosystems in the world – right here in your own backyard.  What captures my imagination today is Harbor School turning the tide in environmental history and reclaiming a cultural, economic and ecological birthright.  That is the dream I want to be part of.  Can you imagine it?  Because if you can imagine it, it’s going to happen.  When you go out from here, whether you become a scientist or a stay-at-home parent, an attorney or a boat captain, a writer or a printer, an architect or a carpenter, a Riverkeeper or a fisherman, you are part of an army changing the world with what you learned at Harbor School.  One day at a time, one place at a time, you will plant your feet.

Now I’m asked often, usually by young kids, because I have so much experience on the river, what my favorite species in the river is.  And there’s a lot to choose from.  There’s Atlantic sturgeon, 250 million years old.  The largest one ever found in the Hudson Estuary was over eleven feet and 400 pounds.  It’s a prehistoric species, has no bones inside of its body.  I love sturgeon.  Blue crab, love blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus, which means beautiful swimmer.  You put them on a deck and they clamber around, you put them in the water and they do a beautiful sidestroke.  When their body gets too big, they crawl out of their shells and grow a new one.  They’re gorgeous to look at.  Love blue crabs.  Oysters.  Love oysters.  One of the reasons why I love oysters is because they live in neighborhoods.  They build communities—what a great metaphor for all of us.

My favorite species by far, however, is you.  Homo sapiens.  They’re the most interesting, they’re the most resilient. An the reason why is that inborn in us, hardwired into our physiology, into our minds and into our souls is compassion, is the desire to do good.  We are the only species on the planet that will run into a raging fire to save a perfect stranger.  We are the only species on the planet who will organize our communities to help a community on the other side of the world we may never even visit.  We are the only species on the planet that will consciously make personal sacrifices to save another species.  We are unique.  There’s a lot of bad news out there.  But evil is a tiny percentage of our world.  The rest of the world is about that hard-wired person who wants to do good and do good for each other.  That is one of the lessons you should take from Harbor School.  


I was asked, back in 2000, to write a letter to the children of 2100.  It was buried in a time capsule in Seattle.  I’m going to be long gone if they ever remember to dig up that time capsule.  I’m not going to be around when it’s read.  It’s short. I’m going to take a moment to read it to you.  It’s originally addressed to the children of 2100.

There was a very popular saying in the last thirty years of the century from which I am writing you.  Here’s how it went.  “If we can land a man on a moon, why can’t we…”  Then we would fill in the blank with something else that society should accomplish.  For example, If we can land a man on the moon, then why can’t we stop the pollution of our rivers?  If we can land a man on the moon, then why can’t we cure cancer?  If we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we land a woman on the moon?  Perhaps these things seem quaint to you.  Perhaps pollution has ceased, diseases have been eradicated, and society has eliminated all forms of prejudice and bigotry.  Perhaps you are exploring new worlds with technology that we can’t even comprehend.  We hope so.  These were some of the things we dreamed to do.  

This has been a popular preoccupation from the century in which I live: our dreams for the future.  We are not unanimous about them.  Many times, our behavior makes it seem like we care only about the present, but the dreams of some have changed history, and you stand on their shoulders.  Do me a favor.  Please read, or better yet watch, the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on August, 28, 1963.  It is the most famous speech from the twentieth century.  King’s words gave courage to a generation of activists, such as myself, who believed that the individual destinies of people on earth were also a shared destiny.  The struggle for a clean healthy environment is proof of this cherished principle.  

As I write this, it occurs to me that instead of that saying “if we can land a man on the moon,” it should say “if we can dream a man on the moon.”  Whether it be crossing the divide of space, or crossing the divide of prejudice, the most difficult part of the journey, is daring to imagine its first step.  So dream.  

I won’t pretend to know or predict what your dreams are or should be, but I am certain there are things you would like to change.  Have the courage to predict how they might be different and dare to turn your dreams into action.  I wish you a life that does honor to your children’s children, that the bridge you build to their lives is constructed with dreams for a better world for them, as well as yourself.  They will be a very happy generation indeed.  

So dream.  

Your friend,

John Cronin